Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Lives of Christian Socialists

Syracuse University, 1928; Gordon and Helen
(first row, second & third from left)

They met at Syracuse University in 1927. The occasion was a joint meeting of the campus chapters of the YMCA and YWCA.

During the 1920s, many college students embraced the Y’s departure from its traditional emphasis on Bible studies and evangelism. The new movement, often called “Christian Socialism,” promoted universal brotherhood – peace, social welfare, social justice. The Y developed a reputation for liberalism that lasted about 20 years, now largely forgotten.

Gordon H., a third-year Syracuse student, became committed to the tenets of Christian Socialism and never let go.

The blue-blooded descendant of New York State farmers, born in 1905, Gordon planned to be a doctor but sacrificed much of his college coursework to the new agenda, giving speeches and attending conferences.

Gordon, front & center;
president of his high school radio club (1918)

Now back to the 1927 meeting, when he looked across the room and became captivated by Helen H., the unhappy middle child of a Syracuse family whose father was an alcoholic and mother a wounded Victorian matron.

He offered her a ride home in a taxi. When she accepted, he knelt to put on her galoshes. They were married in June 1928, on graduation day, wearing borrowed wedding clothes. That was in line with the Y’s endorsement of simple living.

Gordon and Helen had made plans to travel to the American University of Cairo where he would teach biology and she would work as a librarian. A series of events intervened. Instead, they became affiliated with the Methodist Church and left New York on the USS Pennland to travel to Lucknow, India, where they would spend four years mentoring Indian students at the Lucknow Christian College.

“We were firmly opposed to imperialism and the British Empire,” Gordon recalled later, “and harboring pretty poor feelings about missionaries.” Their thoughts were reinforced when an English missionary on board remarked as the boat crossed the Suez Canal, “Let not your voice speak what is in your heart.”

Pushing off, Helen felt absolute relief to be out of Syracuse, liberated from her grim family situation. Gordon felt himself to be an internationalist at last, on the verge of self-transformation. They were modern people who considered themselves equal partners (and used birth control, acquired at considerable cost, Helen confided).

The cause of Indian independence inspired the couple, who spent four years in Lucknow at the height of Gandhi’s leadership. The city turned out to be a hotbed of nationalism. Helen and Gordon became good friends with Sarojini Naido, India’s foremost national woman leader, and spent time with Jawaharlal Nehru. Their three children were born there.


In 1932, the Raj ordered the family to leave after Gordon wrote and published a manifesto about British imperialism, urging rebellion. 

By the time I met Gordon and Helen at their home in Vermont, they were in their mid-90s and had filled their lives with adventure and hard work. Gordon held 14 different jobs between 1934 and 1965, including community organizer, teacher, educational administrator, fundraiser, and entrepreneur. He always advocated for racial equality and international understanding. Their family included three highly accomplished children and several grandchildren.

So why was I visiting them, anyway?

See post November 2, 2016.

1 comment:

  1. My, they could easily be characters in PBS's "Indian Summers." Fascinating.


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